Who Can Be Saved? The Problem with Today’s Answer.


Bishop Robert Barron recently released a Youtube commentary on the question of “Who Can Be Saved”? The problem here is not so much in what is said in this video (although, I’d take issue with what appears to be his assertion that Atheists can be saved by following their conscience, albeit under the auspices of grace), but in what is *not* said. And I think it is worth pointing this out since the modern context of relativism, indifference, and the “meh”-mentality cannot afford to overlook what I am about to say.

Ever since the dawn of the schools which influenced the ecclesiology which came bursting out in the 2nd Vatican Council, we’ve heard the term “fullness” , “participation”, or “imperfect communion”, and words to that effect. These words and phrases added much to the arsenal of the more liberal theologians, as well as the neo-conservatives today who are very optimistic about comparative religion. So much emphasis on the “partaking in” of what is true, good, and beautiful (i.e. God) on whatever scale in the non-Christian religions, no one ever touches upon the “partaking in” of what is *not* true, or good, nor beautiful (i.e. anti-God). Sure, you might be able to pull out a pie-chart and show how one person has 75% of the fullness, another 50%, another 20%, and another 5%, and then focus attention there. But what about the 25%, 50%, 80%, and 95% of soul-killing error? Is this all just “poof” forgivable? Are those evil practices which are not only taught, but strongly promoted in the non-Christian religions (let’s include in here the lifestyle/world-views of Atheism, since the Bishop wanted to include them) just somehow not worth taking the time to speak about? The problem can be illustrated further from the German Catholic theologian, Karl Adam, in his “The Spirit of Catholicism”, which, otherwise is a fantastic book. Adam’s cites from Jesuit Cardinal Juan De Lugo, as summarizing: “God gives light, sufficient for its salvation, to every soul that attains to the use of reason in this life..the various philosophical schools and religious bodies throughout mankind all contain and hand down, amid various degrees of human error and distortion , some truth, some gleams and elements of divine truth…the soul that is in good faith seeks God, His truth and love, concentrates its attention, under the influence of grace, upon the elements of truth, be they many or few, which are offered to it in the sacred books and religious schools and assemblies of the Church, sect, or philosophy in which it has been brought up. It feeds upon these elements, the others are simply passed by; and divine grace, under cover of these elements, feeds and saves this soul” (P. 178). Simply passed by, eh?

In all these discussions, so much emphasis on the “participation” in the “fullness”, but so little on the “participation” in the “lies”, “demonic trickery”, “Godless practices”, and “soul-destroying immoralities”. With how easy this gets ignored (Bp Barron doesn’t even mention it), it is no wonder that even the great thinkers almost make it seem like this other form of “participation” is nearly inconsequential, and assumed to be swept under the rug of Divine clemency.

Surely, this is quite antithetical to the Christian men of old whose posture was nearly presumptuous that humanity outside of Christ is on the road to damnation, and in desperate need of actual and effective redemption. I think of St. Paul who described the life situation of the Ephesians prior to their conversion to Christ in the following manner: “that at that time you were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph 2:12-13). Or how about our Lord who, when commissioning St. Paul to preach to the pagans, presumed to describe them in this manner: “I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.'” (Acts 26:17-18). Would these two statements be said aloud in any contemporary Seminary, I am almost positive (I’d bet money if it were right) that more than half the viewership would say something about the presumptuous character of such words. Without God and without hope before believing the gospel? Living in darkness, blindness, Satanic dominion, and the guilt of sin? That sounds wrongfully presumptuous to the modern ear. Rather, what do the Modernists tell us? Do we not rather hear “Who are we to say whether A or B is in X or Y detriment”? Today, the “great” thinkers are more comfortable on the side of almost complete ignorance, and choose to let God do all the discerning. Thankfully, the Apostles, nor their successors, and nor the greater part of Christian heritage for nearly 1800 years ever thought that such a relegation to ignorance and religious agnosticism was the prudent way to go. And don’t let anyone tell you that liberal Christianity has won more converts than the Old Evangelization.

Lastly, we can dismiss the many comments underneath Bp Barron’s video which rush to say what he is saying is out-in-out heresy or false (again, my reservation being what he said about Atheists), since it is well known that a hundred years before Vatican II, Pope Pius IX had taught quite explicitly that non-Christians can be saved if they labor in invincible ignorance and are animated by perfect charity, following the light and dictate of conscience as best they can (albeit under the auspices of grace). And even hundreds of years prior to Pius IX, the Council of Trent bore Conciliar witness to the theological concept of the “Baptism of Desire” for those who were, by outward confession, Catechumen’s enrolled for baptism on Easter Vigil. Had the old dogma “Extra Ecclesia Nulla Salus” heralded by Pope Eugene IV, or similar statements by Pope Boniface VIII, admitted absolutely no exceptions, then their decrees would have, ipso facto, been manifesto of the condemnation of Catechumens. But we know as far back as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, there was room for the mercy and salvation of Catechumens who died before reaching the holy font of Baptism, and neither of these two men were weightless theologians. Therefore, on the broad whole, Bp Barron’s comments are technically accurate (note my stated reservation), but given the modern context of religious relativism and ecclesial agnosticism, what he *did not say* is what sticks out to us who are mindful of the Sacred Tradition.  Sure, it is “possible” for non-Christians to be saved no certain rare and exceptional conditions. But is that all that needs to be said? And so it is no wonder why the video might get some negative reactions. It is because his presentation just seems to run up against the teaching and intuition of nearly 2,000 years of Christianity. Something is missing. But we need to accurately put our finger on what the problem is, and not what the problem is not. In other words, we hear from the liberal elites today that 2+2=5, and our response should not be 2+2=3.

I will leave you with this analogy which I once heard from a great thinker, whose name won’t be mentioned, who was taking questions on the radio. A caller had called in and asked “What about non-Christians” (etc,etc). This great thinkers’ response went something like this: Imagine you have a terminal illness in the jungles of the Amazon, and you have 2 options at your disposal. You can choose to be hoisted to a local healing-guru, whose plant-mixtures and meditations have been somewhat known to work (……), or you can be helivac to a close by hospital with professional Doctors who have for some time produced the one medication which is 100% effective to cure you of your terminal illness. Which one do you choose? This is much like the option of Christ versus the non-Christian religions. Now, one might say that for some people, all they have is the healing-guru. That might be so, but that does not mean that all of the sudden the healing-guru runs a professional hospital with statistically proven efficacy in medication. People need the Lord, folks. Let’s begin to talk and act like it.

8 thoughts on “Who Can Be Saved? The Problem with Today’s Answer.

  1. “Pope Pius IX had taught quite explicitly that non-Christians can be saved if they labor in invincible ignorance and are animated by perfect charity, following the light and dictate of conscience as best they can (albeit under the auspices of grace).”

    It’s one thing to argue he taught that. Perfectly fine to do so, and, indeed, a vast majority would agree with you. On the other hand, there are reasonable minds (including theologians) who would disagree with you. Therefore, to say he “explicitly taught” your interpretation is false.

    I could dig up quotes for you of theologians who disagree as to your view being what Pius IX taught, but consider this, which I think makes my point.

    Monsignor Fenton, in the 1950s, wrote an article on the letter the Holy Office letter Suprema Haec, and in discussing that he noted that the “common opinion” of the theologians was that the explicit faith necessary for salvation included explicit belief in the Incarnation and the Trinity. Now, manifestly, someone who believes in the Incarnation or the Trinity is not a non-Christian.

    So either: a) Msgr. Fenton didn’t know what he was talking about in describing the common opinion; b) the majority of theologians (who hold that “common opinion”) disagree with your interpretation of Pius IX’s comments, since they thought explicitly Christian belief necessary for salvation; or, c) there is a disconnect between the common opinion on the necessary explicit faith (a Christian belief in the Incarnation and Trinity) for salvation and a majority opinion that Pius IX was describing the possibility of salvation for “non-Christians.”

    I’d say its probably c) . . . which helps explains how we ended up with Vatican II and the Novus Ordo religion, where such contradictions abound.

    In any event, I demur from your claim that Pius IX taught “explicitly” what you say he did.

    • MSS,

      Let’s review what he said:

      “Concerning this doctrine the Pope of Vatican I, Pius IX, spoke on two different occasions. In an allocution (address to an audience) on December 9th, 1854 he said:

      We must hold as of the faith, that out of the Apostolic Roman Church there is no salvation; that she is the only ark of safety, and whosoever is not in her perishes in the deluge; we must also, on the other hand, recognize with certainty that those who are invincible in ignorance of the true religion are not guilty for this in the eyes of the Lord. And who would presume to mark out the limits of this ignorance according to the character and diversity of peoples, countries, minds and the rest?”


      “Again, in his encyclical Quanto conficiamur moerore of 10 August, 1863 addressed to the Italian bishops, he said:

      It is known to us and to you that those who are in invincible ignorance of our most holy religion, but who observe carefully the natural law, and the precepts graven by God upon the hearts of all men, and who being disposed to obey God lead an honest and upright life, may, aided by the light of divine grace, attain to eternal life; for God who sees clearly, searches and knows the heart, the disposition, the thoughts and intentions of each, in His supreme mercy and goodness by no means permits that anyone suffer eternal punishment, who has not of his own free will fallen into sin.”

      Now, how in God’s green earth can we say that those who are “invincibly ignorant” of the Catholic religion, but observe carefully the “natural law” be a description of persons who have subscribed to the Trinity and to Christ?

      • The trouble is that the assertion ‘non-Christians can be saved’ is ambiguous. Some people (I would say most people these days) believe that non-Christians can be saved as such. Other people (I would say most Christians historically) believe that non non-Christians can be saved by becoming Christians. Both groups can say with sincerity that non-Christians can be saved. And both can read what Pius IX wrote in a way that agrees with their belief. That’s why Pius IX’s statement doesn’t settle the question by itself.

  2. I agree with your post, though I would add a couple things. Baptism of Desire is not limited to Catechumens who die before reception water Baptism. A Christian can be regenerated and justified through charity directed towards Christ, while still alive, at the moment of conversion, prior to receiving Baptism. Also, remember that most people in the Old Testament did not have explicit knowledge of Christ and were not supernaturally regenerated like Christians are through Baptism. Yet they were able to be saved. The same principles apply. You are saved by responding positively in faith to whatever grace is available to you. Baptism and knowledge of Christ bring the supernatural effects of salvation into the present moment, but they are not absolutely requirements to be saved at the final judgement. Everyone who follows truth in good conscience will be saved “as through fire.” Remember what Justin Martyr said? Socrates was a Christian? Lol… It’s true though! To follow truth is to follow Christ, since Christ is truth. Now, it must be said, I am coming, not from a modernist background, but from a fundamentalist background, in which all my friends think it absolutely impossible for non-Christians to be saved, so my line of reasoning here is mostly addressed to such people. Within the Catholic Church today, we do have a lot of folks who think it unnecessary to evangelize non-Christians, and this is a shame.

    • I agree. The problem I am getting at here is that one can presume upon the idea that one is safe from the wrath of God merely because they have a “portion” of participation in the Logos.

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